We see the ocean as something unlimited and unimaginable, the last great wilderness on our planet. We carry this idea with us when we first encounter a coral reef diving; never seen organisms and shapes, fearsome reef sharks and elegant turtles swimming by leisurely.
The impression arises that the underwater world is still wild and untouched. The exploration of the reefs is historically still incredibly young. When corals reefs had been on the most prestine state there wasn‘t photos or any videos. The data collected are nevertheless regarded as a „baseline“ in science. This is understandable at first view. The first data available to science on a topic are automatically defined as the original state of matter. However, reefs have existed and been subject to change for much longer than they have been explored. Therefore their original condition is relatively unknown to us.
This is exactly where the theory of „Shifting Baselines“ comes in. It dates the “baseline” to a point in time that does not correspond to the actual baseline. The same happens in society outside of research. What a diver perceives as an underwater world on his first dive becomes his personal „baseline“, finally his original state of the reefs. For the next generation, however, the „baseline“ will already be a completely different one. The „baseline“ is shifting from generation to generation. And so we don‘t notice how far the underwater world is from its original state. The theory of the „Shifting Baseline“ shows us: There is a risk that the underwater world will gradually disappear over generations without us really noticing it. And if we don‘t notice the decline of the underwater world, how can we do enough about it?
Many reefs have suffered serious damage in the human age, the Anthropocene. Rising water temperatures affect corals in particular. The first global coral bleaching occurred in 1998. The next one followed in 2002. Although researchers do not predict annual global coral bleaching until 2040/50, a global bleaching event in 2016 was followed by another one in 2017. In 2020 another mass bleaching occurred and affected the Great Barrier Reef even in the cooler, southern reefs. For Australia, it was the third mass bleaching even in about just five years.
Due to a lack of political intervention, researchers currently expect the reefs to disappear worldwide by the middle of the century. If we lose coral reefs, we lose the rainforest of the sea. We would lose 25% of the fish that live in this „underwater rainforest“ leaving large marine animals without food. We would lose staple food sources from the sea, on which 400 million people depend every day. We would lose the seemingly last big wilderness on our planet, which has not been it anymore for a long time.